Speedwork: Is it for me?

By Lucas Zanetti, Human Kinetics, University of Ottawa

What is speedwork?

Speedwork can take on different terms depending on who you ask. For the purpose of distance running, speedwork can be classified into 2 main categories: Aerobic speedwork and anaerobic speedwork. Aerobic speedwork is a pace that is at, or slightly slower than, your VO2 max, and anaerobic speedwork is any pace that is faster than your VO2 max. VO2 max is a measure of the maximal amount of oxygen that your body is able to actually use during exercise and while it can only be measured in a lab, it is roughly equivalent to a runner’s 3K to 5K race pace.

Benefits of speedwork

There are many benefits to incorporating speedwork into your training. The short answer is that speedwork will make you a better runner, whether your goal is to run faster or your goal is to run longer. A 2018 study by Casper Skovgaard had 20 men and women participate in a 6-week training program that incorporated 10 speedwork sessions. By the end of the program, the runners on average saw a 3.2% increase in their 10K race time. Speedwork also greatly increases your production of myoglobin, which is a protein that transports oxygen within the muscles to the mitochondria. This protein is vital in the production of energy during endurance exercise so increasing its effectiveness will be beneficial for running longer as well.

Speedwork also helps develop essential muscles for running that often get underdeveloped by distance runners such as the hip flexors, hamstrings, and glutes. Developing these muscle groups will allow you to run more efficiently and with better form. Building on this, speedwork also helps reduce the risk of injury by increasing the strength and elasticity of tendons, ligaments and fascia. 

Myths about speedwork

You need to be fast to do speedwork

Speedwork is completely relative and its benefits are universal for all distance runners. Speedwork is based on your 3K-5K race pace so any distance runner can tap into this kind of training!

Speedwork needs to be exhausting to be effective

Some runners may be apprehensive about speedwork because they feel like they are supposed to feel exhausted at the end of a rep or a session. Speedwork is faster than normal running, but in general, reps should be run within your capabilities. Around an 8/10 effort. Reps should feel like you could have run a little bit longer and workouts should feel like you could have done 1 or 2 more reps. Pushing too hard in speed workouts will decrease the quality of following runs, and it will also increase your risk of injury when your form starts to diminish.

You need access to a track to do speedwork

Access to a track can make speed training easier as the surface is smooth, the distances are easily measurable and there are no traffic/stops, but it certainly isn’t necessary in order to get a good workout. Varying the terrain on which you run hard on can help decrease your risk of overuse IT band injuries that are common from running in circles on a track.

How to incorporate speedwork into your training

Now that you’ve learned about the benefits of speedwork and debunked some of the myths surrounding it, let’s begin! Speedwork should only constitute about 10-30% of your training and just like increasing your mileage, it is crucial not to add too much speedwork too soon. Going from 0% to 30% or even 20% can lead to muscle pulls or tears since your hamstrings, hip flexors, and tendons aren’t conditioned for that kind of training load.

Getting started:

A great way to start is to add strides to your runs. Either after your warm up or after your run, add 3-5x 100m where you gradually accelerate to about 80-90% of your top speed. The key with strides is to not accelerate too quickly (this greatly increases risk of pulling hamstrings) and to focus on running with good form when you hit 80-90% of your top speed. Try to think about driving your knees, increasing your cadence, decreasing your contact time with the ground and pumping your arms. Just as you should accelerate slowly, you should decelerate slowly as well to minimize unnecessary impact on your knees. Take a relaxed walk back before starting the next stride.

Fartleks:

Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play” and the idea is that you alternate your running pace during a run from easy to speed.

An example of a fartlek workout could look like:

  • 10 minute warm up of easy running
  • 10 x 1 minute at 5K pace, followed by 1 minute at easy pace
  • 10 minute cool down of easy running

A more advanced fartlek might look like:

  • 15 minute warm up of easy running
  • 8 x 2 minutes at 5K pace, followed by 2 minutes at easy pace
  • 10 minutes of easy running
  • 6 x 1 minute at 3K pace, followed by 1 minute at easy pace
  • 15 minute cool down of easy running

Intervals:

There are almost endless ways to structure an interval workout depending on your goals and capabilities. The idea behind a traditional interval workout is that after warming up, you will run a set or multiple sets of reps that are short (between 200m and 1K for each rep), and are run at, or faster than, your 3K-5K pace. Between each rep, you would take either a stationary rest, walking rest, or even a jogging rest depending on the workout. 

An example of an interval workout could look like:

  • 10x 400m at 3K pace with a 2 minute rest between each rep

A more advanced interval workout might look like:

  • 6 x 800m at 5K pace with a 2 minute easy jog rest between reps
  • 5 minute stationary rest after the first set
  • 4 x 400m at 3K pace with a 3 minute walk rest between reps
  • 5 minutes stationary rest after the second set
  • 3 x 200m done faster than 3K pace with a 3 minute walk rest between reps

Summary

Now you understand what speedwork is, how it benefits not only your speed but also your endurance and longevity as a runner, and you have an idea of how to begin to incorporate speed workouts into your training. 

Reminder that if you register for Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend 2024, you will receive a FREE upgrade to Asics Premium Runkeeper Go which is a tool that will help you create a customized training plan, including speedwork, to help you achieve your goals! Register now to bring your training to the next level today!